Aug 18, 2016
Heart Screens Bench Two Pitt Players

Two University of Pittsburgh football players, George Hill and Zack Gilbert, were recently diagnosed with heart conditions, resulting in them sitting out the upcoming season, and possibly being unable to play football at all.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pitt is one of the few schools that tests athletes with an electrocardiogram, or EKG, to check for abnormalities as part of the preparticipation physical. If the tests identify an irregularity, the doctors will perform additional tests to see if there is a risk. If there is, they will decide whether it can be managed, or whether the athlete should not be allowed to participate, a recommendation that they made for Hill. Gilbert will sit out for the next season, and afterward, he will be reevaluated.

Rob Blanc, Pitt’s Head Athletic Trainer, said that in the course of testing athletes over 12 years, only four or five have been diagnosed with irregularities, and all of them had been cleared to play. Uncovering two players with heart conditions in the same year is a “very rare” occurrence.

According to Dr. Timothy Wong, a cardiologist for the Heart and Vascular Institute at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, only two percent of college athletes have career-ending heart disorders, and there is only one sudden cardiac death for every 43,000 to 83,000 football college athletes. He said that EKG readings had a risk of false positives, in which healthy athletes were diagnosed with a disorder they did not have.

“The downside of a false positive is it triggers further testing and it may unnecessarily sideline a player for some time until the definitive testing can be done,” Wong said. “When you look for rare diseases, you know you’re going to have a certain number of false positives. It’s kind of a whole concept of are we causing needless anxiety and generating a lot of downstream testing that doesn’t change our long-term management of that player?”

Cost is another major factor in not all schools offering heart testing to athetes, but Blanc feels the expense is worth the potential findings. 

“I talk to my colleagues and they go, ‘Do you do those on everybody?’ I say, ‘Yeah’,” Blanc said. “They say it doesn’t sound very cost effective. Well, it isn’t until something like this comes up. The fact those guys played high school football … and maybe they would have gone to the NFL and played 15 years and never had a problem. But maybe not.”

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